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What MBA Programs Are Really Looking for in Candidates

Joe El Rady

Before we dive into the personality trait MBA programs are really looking for, it’s story time...

When Apple confirmed the fears of many customers that the iPhone 7 series would not include a 3.5mm headphone jack, Apple's marketing chief Phil Schiller stood on stage and stated:

"The reason to move on: courage.”

Schiller’s statement fell flat. It sucked the air from the room. It elicited an almost immediate reflexive and collective eye-roll! Schiller’s statement not only conflicted with consumer sentiment, but also, and more importantly, lacked self-awareness.

Self-awareness (sometimes called self-knowledge or introspection) is an understanding of your own feelings, habits, needs, desires, and failings.

As Socrates advocated, “know thyself.” The more you know about yourself, the better you will understand others and the world around you. The better you know yourself, the more easily you will adapt. The better you know yourself, the more effectively you will express yourself—preventing misunderstandings and misperceptions. Most importantly, the better you know yourself, the better you will understand how others perceive you.

We can all assume Schiller meant to communicate Apple’s belief in tearing down the old and moving forward. In his defense, it truly does take courage to innovate. However, he failed to sell the audience on any of that during the talk. In fact, he alienated them. These missteps abound in business and politics.

In 2009, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, responded to an outcry about compensation by stating that Goldman bankers are “doing God’s work.” I’ve been an investment banker. Let me tell you, we were not doing God’s work—we were thinking about Rolexes and Rolls-Royces.

Again, what Blankfein may have been thinking makes some sense to insiders. True bankers, ones who finance things—infrastructure, countries, companies—are helping humanity advance. Had he said that, none of us would have rolled our eyes or called him the “Gold Pope.” But due to his lack of self-awareness in that moment, we reacted the way we did.

What MBA Programs Are Looking For

Attend any MBA tour or visit any top MBA program and ask one of the admissions officers for a list of personality traits they look for in a candidate and you will almost always hear “self-awareness”. Not because it’s a buzzword or a fad, but because it is actually that important. 

What it boils down to: MBA programs are looking for a major demonstration of self-awareness in their applicants.

MBA programs want to nurture and create future leaders. In each of the above cases, the men tainted their messages and also their reputations. The speaker’s lack of self-awareness led him to make a statement without considering the perception—a fault that is particularly damaging in leadership positions. Regardless of the statements’ intents, true meaning, or even correctness, they have not only elicited mockery, but failed to communicate the speakers’ actual intent. 

Effective leadership requires faith and trust from those being led. For these reasons, self-awareness is an essential trait for a future in business.

Once you understand the necessity of self-awareness when applying for an MBA, the question becomes how to become self-aware and the best way to exhibit this vital trait in your application. 

3 Steps to Self-Awareness as an MBA Applicant:

1. Sit with your thoughts. Now is the time to eliminate any distractions. Go somewhere alone, silence your phone, close your laptop, and start thinking. Think about the path your life has taken and acknowledge areas for improvement. Be honest with yourself about who you are, what you value, and where you see yourself in the future.

2. Dig deeper. Once you have reflected on the broad themes of your life, it’s time to get down to details. A pen and paper might come in handy here. Name your passions by determining which aspects of your life excite you most. What accomplishments are you proud of? What do you look forward to accomplishing in the future? Next, identify how an MBA will help you achieve those goals.

3. Develop a cohesive personal brand. After you paint a clear picture of who you are and your personal motivations, you will be ready to build your personal brand. Choose 3-5 character traits that you feel best define you and use these throughout your application to give the admissions committee a holistic vision of who you are and where you want to go. A major component to your personal brand is the reason why you want your MBA, so be sure to include concrete, personal reasons for why you are applying.

3 Ways to Exhibit Self-Awareness in an MBA Application:

1. Take responsibility. If you are required to answer a question regarding a mistake you have made, this is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate self-awareness. While it is true that many mistakes in a business setting are the result of team error, admissions officers want to know your role in the error and what you learned in the process. When this question arises, do not defer blame. Portray your ability to acknowledge mistakes you’ve made and how these mistakes have helped you learn and improve. Not only will this show your ability to take responsibility for your errors, it will turn a weakness into a strength.

2. Demonstrate teamwork. Self-aware people are an effective part of a team. While it is important to discuss your involvement in your community or work extracurriculars, simply stating all the times you’ve been part of a team does not tell the admissions committee how you fare in group settings. Show your self-awareness by sharing specific contributions you have made. To do this, detail the role you’ve played on team-based projects, any challenges your team encountered, and how you aided in their resolution.

3. Show leadership. Even those who aren’t in management positions must demonstrate leadership in their MBA application. Before tackling your essays, identify ways you’ve engaged others on a team, adapted well to change, shown reliability, and produced results. Throughout your application, remember that being a leader is less about giving orders and more about taking initiative, motivating others, and problem solving.

TL;DR: What are MBA programs looking for in the ideal candidate? Answer: Self-awareness.


Joe El Rady


Joe El Rady

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